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NBA Sunday: Suns Overcoming Contract Issues

Jeff Hornacek explains how the Suns overcame contract issues and inexperience to have a great year… Houston’s Achilles’ heel exposed?

Bill Ingram



Suns Overcoming Contract Issues

The Phoenix Suns were not supposed to be in the playoff discussion this season. Period. They were not supposed to be anywhere close to good enough to compete in the brutally tough Western Conference. Even when they were very good early on, the general feeling was that sooner or later they would come down to earth and be the rebuilding, mediocre team that most believed they would be. However, that wasn’t the case, and even though last night’s crushing, last-second loss in Dallas puts the Suns’ postseason bid in serious jeopardy, they have been an impressive team from start to finish this season.

“It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said of his rebuilding process. “The chemistry part is big and we have 10 new guys and you never know how that’s going to come together. They’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning that they were a bunch of new guys and there’s a lot of guys that had contracts end this year or they end next year. That’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual and are worrying about their contracts. I told them stories about some guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you. That’s when they’ll pay you bigger bucks, if you’re on a good team. For a good team, all of that stuff will come. Don’t worry about it and just play and try to win games and that’s what the guys have done. They’ve put all of that stuff aside and just played.”

Despite the fairly low expectations coming into the season, Hornacek saw signs early on that he might have a better group on his hands than people were giving the Suns credit for.

“The whole part of the rebuilding was you’re going to have steps from the team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games,” Hornacek said. “We thought if we can get to 30-35 [wins] and start establishing things and then maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get into playoffs. Those kind of stepping stones that you have to go through, maybe we just skipped a round. One thing I saw early on, we came out there early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place. When you’re in a rebuilding mode, a lot of times guys are talking about moral victories. ‘Hey, we played well.’ Our guys were all ticked off and were mad about it. To me, as a competitive player, I took that as a sign that we can be okay this year because these guys really care and they want to win.”

Sometimes NBA head coaches fall into the trap of emphasizing their system over the abilities of their players, but that’s not something Hornacek did. He designed his system to fit his personnel, and that’s why a player like Gerald Green, who has had trouble finding a long-term NBA home, can be such an important part of the team’s success.

“Gerald is a guy that can get a shot off anywhere and he does,” Hornacek explained.He’s got great confidence in his shooting. The guy has done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improving in terms of his consistency; it’s not where he’s jacking up 10 threes and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them then he moves and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement has come from.”

The Suns have had a great deal of success running two point guards together in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The idea to do that came from Hornacek’s experience playing alongside Kevin Johnson as a member of the Suns’ backcourt.

“I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through back in the day when you have two guards out there and we wanted to be on an up-tempo team and we felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to,” Hornacek said. “We don’t need it in one guy’s hands, you can throw it to anybody. When we talked about do we think we can work and [Dragic] said, ‘Yeah, I think it’ll be great getting him from one side to another.’ Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone is going to have an advantage, as good as those two guys are, and just try to take advantage of one of the two.”

The NBA game has changed quite a bit since Hornacek retired, but the biggest change he sees is the new emphasis on three-point shooting.

“The emphasis on the three is much bigger now,” said Hornacek, himself quite a marksman from downtown as a player. “We kind of always laugh because I always talk about the threes, but really it’s really all about the effective field goal percentage. When I came in over the summer I looked at it and every team that was over 51 percent in the effective field goal percentage is in the playoffs except for two and those were the two best defensive teams in Indiana and Memphis. That’s a good goal to aim at, but back in the day we all, as a team, shot over 50 percent, so you mix in four or five threes rather than 10 of them your effective field goal percentage is probably about the same. It’s just a different way to get to it.”

When it comes to establishing himself as an NBA head coach this season, Hornacek has leaned heavily on some advice he got from former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan.

“We went into it and I just tried to take a little from all of the coaches,” Hornacek said. “From Jerry, it’s just going out there and trying to play every play like it’s your last. That’s what Jerry always stressed. We’re constantly talking about that and we’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly on how to do that night in and night out and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh, I forgot,’ or, ‘I spaced out,’ because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that ‘play every play like it’s your last’ and we try to get that to these guys, too.”

Whether or not the Suns make the playoffs, the 2013-14 campaign has been an extremely positive one for the team and their rookie head coach. It’s clear that Hornacek’s vision is a good one, and that he can get his team, even a team full of guys with every reason to put their own stats over the team’s success, to buy in and play a very competitive brand of basketball every night.

Houston’s Achilles’ Exposed?

The arrival of Dwight Howard in Houston was supposed to herald a new era of contention for the Rockets, who have not been among the NBA’s elite teams since Hakeem Olajuwon took off No. 34 for the last time. When Howard has been healthy, he’s been a solid inside presence for Houston, as good as they could have hoped when they paid the big bucks to bring him to town. Unfortunately, having the defensive juggernaut down low has only further exposed a growing concern for the Rockets.

Going back to just the beginning of April, we can take an in-depth look at Houston’s biggest issue heading into the playoffs. James Harden dropped 29 points and dished nine assists against the Brooklyn Nets, but the Rockets were -17 with him on the court that night and lost 96-105. The reason? Harden’s man, Joe Johnson, scored 32 points while connecting on 13-21 from the field.

Sure, but that’s Joe Johnson, right? Plenty of players have struggled to guard Johnson over the years.

Houston’s next game was against the Toronto Raptors, a team that boasts no established Hall of Fame candidates and wouldn’t be in the playoff picture out West. The Rockets dropped that game 103-107 despite Harden’s 26-point night. Of course, the Rockets were -14 with him on the court and his man, DeMar DeRozan went off for 29 points on 10-for-19 shooting.

What about some really bad, players, though? Surely Harden dominates the bad players on the defensive end, right? Against the hapless and tanking Philadelphia 76ers, Harden recorded a triple-double and the Rockets won easily. Unfortunately, his man, journeyman James Anderson, had one of the best games of his NBA career, dropping 30 points while connecting on 11-of-18 from the field.

More recently, as Houston’s playoff position has started to slip, the Rockets dropped a game to the injured and struggling Denver Nuggets thanks in large part to Randy Foye, who had a stunning 30 points and 18 assists while being defended – and that word is used loosely – by Harden. For the record, Foye is averaging 12.8 points per game on the season and had managed 30 or more just once this season before the Houston game. Next up, the Rockets took on a Minnesota Timberwolves team that will not make the playoffs and was missing Kevin Love. As you may have guessed by now, Harden’s man had a career night. Scoring phenom (cough, cough) Corey Brewer recorded a career-high 51 points in leading the Timberwolves to a 112-110 win.

There’s no question that the Rockets are an improved team with Howard patrolling the paint, and they have a shot at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs with him in the mix. You can be absolutely certain, however, that whoever the Rockets play in the first round will run plenty of their offense through the two-guard position, and Harden’s inability/unwillingness to play defense might just be the difference between Houston advancing and an early vacation for the boys in red.

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Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.


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Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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